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A springtime color tour of the alleys


An undeniable urge struck me one morning this week.

It was one of those fine spring dawns when there was no reason to stay in bed past 5:30.

It was the right hour for a long walk, with maybe a few errands thrown in whenever the stores got around to opening. While crossing the Cedar Avenue Bridge en route to Druid Hill Park, I realized this was the day to take time and smell the roses.

I was off and running. Forget the formal gardens. Look for poker-hot splashes of exuberant color where you might least expect it.

This little exercise in May madness involved walking along the occasionally dirty alleys of Baltimore. And, to be honest, more often than not these back ways are often cleaner than you might imagine.

The roses in kitchen windows have appeared. The climbing varieties, which are nailed to old arbors, back porches and garages, are almost passionately beautiful.

These are gaudy fountains of color -- the velvety dark reds, the candy box pinks, the yellows edged with a traces of salmon.

Sometimes the most untamed and unruly backyard gardens put on the most dazzling displays.

I guess that's the reason I've never really gotten too worked up over the fabled Philadelphia Flower Show and its cousins in other cities. The flower shows are artificial. We just don't live like that.

Give me a row of Peace, Queen Elizabeth or Chrysler Imperial roses growing around plastic garbage cans, or outdoor barbecue grills, or canoes stored in backyards.

My walk wasn't planned or structured. I just took the route of the sanitation workers and hoped I wouldn't be disappointed. I was not.

I saw columbine prettier than those on the pages of a garden catalog. One patient Maryland Avenue resident had built a shrine to the Virgin Mary using clam shells, roses and clematis. It was a remarkable piece of folk art and a remarkable piece of gardening too.

In other alleys were great clumps of pinkish foxglove and purple Dame's Rocket.

The alleys themselves are patchworks of paving materials. Some are smooth concrete. Many are brick. Whatever covers the surface of the ground, the effect is informal. And talk about inducing memories. What Baltimore child didn't prefer an alley to a playground?

After a while, it is hard not to imagine the type of person who resides in these rowhouses as reflected in the character of their gardens.

Does a neatly tended garden mean its master or mistress has never missed a credit card payment? Does an obsessively tended garden mean the gardener is not someone you'd vacation with? Does one that grows wild indicate all sorts of sloppy habits? Does it all mean anything at all?

It is also nice to think that people take the time and expend the effort to tend a garden. In this world where everybody seems to be chasing the clock or not getting around to something, praise the people who take time for flowers.

A few words about danger. The saints always seem to protect the alley walkers from harm. There was one foul-tempered Chow dog along the way that thankfully remained on his side of a strong mesh fence. Then again, dogs are supposed to guard back yards.

I learned with alley walking, it's best to smile and wave at people you meet. Even if you don't know them, you might make them think you do.

A few days ago, I walked into a Charles Street book shop and found myself forking over $7 for a glossy magazine featuring the gardens of England and Ireland. Its pages were filled with photographs of perfection.

I looked over this publication for an hour and in a burst of impatience got on the phone and wound up spending $26 for three plants from a Connecticut mail-order house. (I later found the same three plants in Baltimore for $12.)

But on balance, the time and effort would have been better spent hunting the roses, the ones that seem to bloom best next to the garbage cans.

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